The goal is genuine innovation
Digital Food Quality – a centre for research-based innovation has been in operation for just over a year. The centre, also known as DigiFoods for short, is headed by senior scientist Jens Petter Wold of Nofima. Its goal is to develop smart sensors for measuring product quality without having to cut into or touch the raw materials. The aim is to enable such measurements to be made on processing lines during manufacturing or in fields or on fishing boats.
Monitoring the quality of raw materials allows you to optimise both their utilisation and the processes. This will help make the food industry, including manufacturing, more efficient and sustainable.
A technology optimist with a great respect for nature
“DigiFoods’ research takes place in the intersections between food technology, processing control, sensor development, robotics and data analytics. This provides good opportunities for innovation on many levels,” says the head of the centre, Jens Petter Wold.
He is a technology optimist with a great respect for nature and has worked on the development of rapid spectroscopic measuring methods for use in the food industry for more than twenty years.
Jens Petter Wold has therefore seen with his own eyes how the potential for precise, detailed measurements using non-destructive sensors has grown in line with digital advances. For example, ten years ago, you could measure the fat content of raw materials. Today, you can analyse their fatty acid composition.
One of the main things that drives the senior scientist is a desire to help ensure raw materials are used to their fullest and that as little as possible is wasted.
“A lot of energy goes into producing and distributing food. We need to make sure that everything is eaten. Fighting food waste is very important,” he points out.
He adds that while technology can do a lot, all of the work must always be based on an understanding of nature.
“Technology can make us more sustainable, and our goal should not merely be to become more efficient. We are efficient enough. The technology we are developing in DigiFoods will allow us to use these resources sustainability.”
Useful spectroscopic applications
In 2021, DigiFoods’ researchers developed a number of applications based on spectroscopy (light spectrum measurements) that can be useful in the food industry.
Doctoral student Tiril Aurora Lindtvedt and her research colleagues have established that both Raman spectroscopy (a method for measuring various properties at a molecular level) and near-infrared (NIR) hyperspectral imaging technology are suitable for measuring food quality at high speeds. For example, this could involve measuring the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in whole salmon fillets, directly on the processing line. Aquaculture is showing a great deal of interest in this application.
Postdoctoral researcher Samuel Ortega Sarmiento has, together with his colleagues, demonstrated that hyperspectral imaging can also be used to separate poor quality halibut, so-called ‘mushy halibut’, from normal Greenland halibut. Mushy fish with a jelly-like consistency is a challenge for the industry that processes this species of fish. Being able to identify mushy halibut before processing would be a big advantage. This could be an important application for the seafood industry.
PhD student Bijay Kafle and his colleagues are developing new applications based on Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). One of the applications they are in the process of developing is designed to be able to measure the quality of protein powder produced from residual raw materials. The goal is to make a relatively cheap and portable FTIR instrument that can be used directly on the processing line in manufacturing, both to monitor the hydrolysis process and to document product quality. An NIR instrument calibrated to monitor dry matter in raw potato strips has been installed on an industrial processing line. The researchers are about to start investigating whether the measurements made can be used to control and improve the process.
New areas of use for Thorvald the farming robot
The technology behind Thorvald the farming robot was developed at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). Professor Pål Johan From has played a key role in its development and heads the ‘integration of robots and sensor solutions’ research area in DigiFoods.
Thorvald already uses light treatment to remove mildew from strawberries and grapes.
“When we reduce the use of crop spraying, we can produce strawberries in a more sustainable way that provides healthier plants and healthier food for the consumer,” says Pål Johan From. The goal of the DigiFoods researchers is to fit Thorvald with sensors that can measure the quality of fruit and berries. This will enable the robot, for example, to precision pick strawberries with certain qualities. To do this successfully, the sensors must be able to judge the sensory quality of each strawberry, and the sensors must be small enough to actually fit on Thorvald so he can take them with him out into the fields.
Collecting large volumes of data
The experts in DigiFoods are already hard at work collecting, processing and analysing data from a number of food industry companies. The long-term goal is to develop data-driven solutions for processing, product and value chain optimisation. In the years ahead, it will be important for DigiFoods to collect data on a large scale from both smart sensors and other processes in the food value chain. Norwegian companies are strongly represented in DigiFoods. All of the food companies are Norwegian, as are a majority of the technology companies. This provides them with an opportunity to be at the forefront of technological development in the field, and to gain insights into the challenges faced by the food industry. Both are important criteria for success.